Confronting opacity

On March 24 last year, the Government of India imposed a sudden, harsh lockdown to curb the spread of COVID-19. In doing so, it gave the people of the country less than four hours to prepare for the eventuality. How successful have the governmental measures been in containing the pandemic? What explains the second wave we are witnessing now? Apart from the health cost, the pandemic has taken a huge economic, ethical and moral toll on the population. In their research for the UNESCO, with the support of the International Center for Journalists, Julie Posetti and Kalina Bontcheva document how the pandemic has spawned potentially deadly misinformation and disinformation that directly impacts lives and livelihoods around the world. They point out that one of the techniques adopted by political players to deflect attention from their own inadequacies is to discredit journalists and credible news outlets.

In need of transparency

In these times of unprecedented difficulties, a transparent decision-making system is the only way forward. It will help citizens know where we went wrong and how we can course correct. It will create a situation where we do not heap new policy hardships on the populace over and above an imperious decision that has already pushed many to the brink. We hoped that the highest court will stand with the people of the country in their quest for transparency and openness. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court of India, which first introduced the notorious idea of sealed envelopes, has been in the forefront of upholding and valorising opacity. How else can one read the observation of the first bench in the electoral bonds case where it concurred that the scheme protected the identity of purchasers of electoral bonds in a cloak of anonymity, but came to the conclusion that eventually the State Bank of India will know the identity of the buyer? The editorial, ‘In-house secrets’ (March 27), listed out the perils flowing from adopting opaque methods in dealing with complaints against the judiciary: “Should the confidentiality rule always hold the field? Is it possible to dismiss the allegations without disclosing who were heard as witnesses and what material was considered as evidence?”

In this environment where seeking accountability is fast being replaced by endorsing those in power and their decisions, however harmful they may be, the question before journalists is this: How do we help people make informed choices? There are two components to good journalism: providing credible information and making sense of complex realities. One of the key elements that distinguishes a journalist from an onlooker is the nature of the observation. A journalist bears witness to events and happenings and that is vastly different from a casual and sometimes voyeuristic gaze.

The heart of journalism

In the last 35 years, I have been a reporter bearing witness and an opinion writer trying to make sense. I have no hesitation in declaring that reporting is the heart of journalism. It brings in elements of transparency, accountability and the voices of people who are impacted by the decisions taken by governments. Filmmaker Vinod Kapri exemplifies this act of bearing witness, in his documentary 1232km, in which he meticulously records the difficulties encountered by a group of migrant labourers in their arduous journey from Ghaziabad, on the outskirts of Delhi, to Saharsa in Bihar.

Six years ago, British journalist Charlie Beckett posed a crucial question: Is good news really news at all? He asked a pointed question: “News can be informed and informing or crass, shallow and swift, but now it is all networked together. The choice is there for the journalists but it’s also there for consumers. Which do you want?” At that time, I did not realise that the executive would become the sole arbitrator of our life.

Let us look at the functioning of our Parliament. In the last six years, the accent has been in getting more bills cleared rather than debating the pros and cons of a policy. Can someone explain the meaning of the claims that the productivity of the Lok Sabha was more than 110% and that of the Rajya Sabha was more than 120%? It was a display of the might of the majority rather than the democratic mediation of ideas. Hence, reporting alone can confront the all-pervasive opacity in the legislature and the judiciary.

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Printable version | May 11, 2021 6:16:00 PM |

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